Friday, February 22, 2013

Earth Poisoning Diary (week 3)

Thanks to Andrew Bolt for promoting this diary on his blog, even though it led to my first-ever hate emails. Also thanks to The Australian, who likened me to Adrian Mole. I hope some readers who were introduced to my work through these fundamentally anti-science sites will reflect on their contribution to earth poisoning; though in South Australia, 26% of electrical power is already generated from the wind (averaged over a year - not just at times of peak wind).

A book to which I contributed two chapters (one on health and population, and another on scenarios) was released by the Australian Academy of Science. This led to a discussion with Mark O'Connor, co-author of Overloading Australia, about Australia's future population trajectory. We agree that the current level of migration to Australia is too high, that the world is seriously over-populated, that Limits to Growth and Planetary Boundaries are very close. We also agree that the per capita Australian environmental footprint needs to be greatly reduced. 

But we disagree over the desirable level of migration to Australia. I agree with Mark that a sharp contraction in migration to Australia will help protect our quality of life, perhaps for several decades. As climate change worsens, bringing with it more extreme weather events (not just heat waves and fires but heavier rainfall and more floods), as sea level rises then food prices will continue to rise, increasing the chance of civil unrest, open conflict and large-scale migration. This is prospect is likely to even worse if energy prices remain as high (or even higher).

I argue that unless we reverse this trajectory, the difference between our quality of life and that of our future neighboursis likely to motivate resentment and eventually invasion. If we take the rapid population stabilisation route then regional inequality will ratchet higher and we will feel ever more threatened and xenophobic, in a positive feedback that could lead to us being the Israel of the South Pacific. Already most Australians tolerate the diversion of government supplied foreign aid (very stingy by Scandinavian standards) to fund detention centres in which asylum seekers sew their lips together. This is no long-term solution, but an intensification of Fortress Australia.

This is a dilemma. Yes, slower population growth through migration (say, half of what we currently have) still creates challenges for infrastructure provision, especially in cities, and worsens the physical quality of life of most people already living here. But human well-being also has psychological and moral dimensions, and closing the drawbridge in order to protect our physical conditions does not feel nice to me. And, in the long run, those physical conditions risk erosion, in any case.

We thus need modest migration to keep us engaged regionally, to lessen xenophobia, but most fundamentally as an issue of planetary fairness. More importantly Australia needs to contribute to solutions, especially ways to generate and export clean energy rather than Earth poison. Coal exports are madness over a long period because they worsen climate change, create ghost infrastructure (e.g. railways to nowhere) and inhibit us from thinking of long-term solutions (consider the power of the coal mining industry.)  While renewables are declining in price, the cost of Earth poisons keep rising even without accounting for their hidden social, environmental and inter-generational costs. We should switch subsidies from Earth poison to renewables; Bloomberg states that additional power in Australia will be cheaper if derived from clean sources than from coal.

Through the week I watched Stephen Spielberg's film Lincoln, which shows the way a great human being was able to deliver revolutionary change —  ending slavery —  despite powerful and hostile vested interests. If they have their way (then, now and in future), these interests might outlaw free speech and thought. The film did not mention Lincoln's criticism of corporations, as former Senator Bob Brown foreshadowed in his Krebs Lecture last week at the University of Canberra. 

Finally, the heading in The Australian complained that I am "sucking on the taxpayer teat".  I am extremely grateful to the Australian tax payer for the chance my Fellowship gives me to think, speak and and write, including for a recent WHO Technical Report about environmental change, agriculture and infectious diseases of poverty. Would the anonymous headline writer in The Australian like to publicise how some tax payer's money has been used to prepare this report? That would be nice.